When Mark Rubinstein went hunting for pythons in the Everglades, he didn’t find any. Instead, he struck gold.
Glinting up at him in the dirt along a levee, Rubinstein stumbled across a gold pendant encrusted with a sapphire cross surrounded by a circle of diamonds. One of the pendant’s edges is melted.
The site where Rubinstein and his friends were python-hunting is also where two planes went down, one in 1972, the other in 1996.
Of the 176 people aboard Eastern Flight 401, 99 died.
All 109 people aboard ValuJet Flight 592 were killed.
Rubinstein believes the pendant belonged to one of the crash victims.
“The way that it was melted...and once somebody pointed out to me where we found it, it kind of synced up,” Rubinstein said. And it would have taken an intense heat to make the side of the pendant melt into a bit of a glob, he added.
Rubinstein, along with friends Gregg and Brian Jobes, were slogging through the wetlands about 10 miles into the Everglades one February afternoon. The sun was low, and something sparkled in the dirt.
“Something just caught me eye,” said Rubinstein, of Coral Springs. “It was funny because while I pulled it up, the others were telling me, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
When he got home, he took the pendent, encrusted with dirt, and dropped it into jewelry solution, expecting it to turn green.
“But it just kept getting brighter and brighter,” he said.
Two weeks later, someone pointed out that where he’d been python hunting was where the two planes had come down.
The ValuJet flight, leaving Miami International Airport for Atlanta on May 11, 1996, had caught fire shortly after take off. It is believed that the pilot, knowing the plane wouldn’t make it back to the airport, directed the flight over the Everglades to avoid additional loss of life on the ground.
The Eastern flight had left New York bound for Miami on Dec. 29, 1972. Credit was given for the saving of so many lives to a Homestead man who was out at night frog-catching. He pulled survivors onto his airboat and held a flashlight up to help rescuers find the scene.
“I was going through different emotions,” Rubenstein said, upon realizing the pendant might have belonged to someone killed in one of the crashes. But he quickly came to the conclusion that he has to get the pendant back to the family of whoever lost it. “It was part of a situation that caused so much sorrow.”
Rubinstein took the pendant to the Florida Gold Coast Gem & Mineral Society, which posted a photo of it on a forum for jewelers. This got the attention of Stephen Walker of Walker Metalsmiths in Andover, N.Y., who said the pendant is at least 18-karat, maybe 22-karat gold.
Anything less would have melted into an entire glob.
About two weeks ago, Rubinstein took the pendant to Carroll’s Jewelers in Fort Lauderdale, where owner Robert Moorman took a look at it.
Moorman said the piece originates from the late-1700s to the mid-1800s. It was custom-made and custom-cut. The three-leaf design is a Celtic design and the “M” in the design stands for the Virgin Mary, said Moorman, who is familiar with Celtic and Catholic imagery.
Rubinstein and the jewelers are following a lead that has taken them to the family of a victim of the ValuJet crash who had connections to Celtic jewelry.
“To me this isn’t a story about the python or the pendant,” Rubinstein said. “It’s about the people.”
If he doesn’t find the family, he plans to donate the pendant to a museum or the Archdiocese of Miami.
“It didn’t belong to the swamp and it doesn’t belong to me,” Rubinstein said.
Walker, who makes Celtic jewelry, said the piece on its way from Florida to his New York shop. He plans to take it to an expert metallurgist for sophisticated alloy testing that could determine where the gold came from.
The piece, undamaged, might sell for $1,500 in a high-end antique store, Walker said. Melted down, the materials would be worth about $150.
But to the loved ones of whoever died wearing it, Walker said, “it’s priceless.’’